From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Today was Andrew’s and my last full day together, as we will each fly out to different destinations from Accra tomorrow.  Fortunately, it was a day to remember, with a series of great experiences in Accra to round off our time travelling together.

Our day began after a wonderful sleep on excellent beds with a fabulous buffet breakfast at our hotel.  The Novotel in Accra is probably the best of the many good hotels (and more than a few very basic ones too) where we have stayed over the past few weeks. 

Our first visit this morning was to the National Museum of Ghana.  Surprisingly difficult to find with poor signage and confusing maps, it is a large two-storey building with an octagonal base and a round upper floor, set in shady grounds.  The museum featured a wonderful exhibition of Ghana’s diverse ethnic groups and traditions, history (including the slave trade), crafts and art.  Unlike many of the museums we have visited on the trip, this museum allows photography (for a small fee), and the explanatory signs were clear and detailed – no need to stand listening to a museum guide drone on interminably here.

Having brushed up on Ghanaian history and culture, our next visit was to Jamestown.  Jamestown is the historical part of Accra, containing many old British colonial buildings.  However, it is not a privileged area; much of Jamestown comprises shanties and slums.  The low land value seems to reflect the sad reality that the area is being heavily eroded by the ocean; we saw ample evidence of collapsed buildings and fences that have fallen away from the tops of undercut cliffs into the crashing waves below.

Last time I was in Jamestown (on day 2 of this trip), it was not a pleasant experience.  Apart from the smoky air on that day from all the fires that were burning, I was accosted by an angry, physically aggressive, inebriated young man with bad teeth who could hardly stand up or put two words together, demanding payment for a photo he thought I had taken of a general street scene.  As we drove to Jamestown today, Mama cautioned me about the aggressive young men there who demand payment for all sorts of things, and I knew exactly what he was talking about as I nodded in agreement.  We both had an element of foreboding as we approached Jamestown.

I was hoping to begin our visit by going to the top of the old lighthouse.  I had read that it was possible to do so (for a small fee) only after my previous visit.  Moreover, as the air today was much clearer than when I came four weeks ago, the lighthouse seemed like a good place to start.

We drove to the lighthouse, and as we alighted from the car, we were met by a couple of young men and told to wait for the man who could help us.  When he arrived, it turned out to be the same angry man that I had encountered last time – and the same angry man that Mama had encountered two years previously!  Today, however, he was in a much better mood – sober, pleasant, chatty, amiable, and very happy to show us around (for the small fee).  We learned later that he doesn’t get drunk; he gets stoned with marijuana, like most of the men in the fishing village it seems.

The view from the top of the lighthouse was astounding.  We had an excellent view over the old colonial buildings, the palace where the local king lives, the fishing village beside the beach and Fort James, which was built by the British as a slave fortress, and is still used today as a prison.  I am sure that the lighthouse offers the best elevated views in Accra, and fortunately for us, the old British iron that has supported  the lighthouse (and the steps we used for the climb) since it was built in the 1930s hasn’t completely disintegrated in the salt air.

Our guide (protector?) then offered to take us down into the fishing village where he lived (for an additional small fee).  I had heard that the fishing village was all but inaccessible to outsiders, so this was an offer I was happy to accept, and it was an amazing experience – with permission to photograph as freely as we liked.

The fishing village was a bewildering array of bustling activity.  We began by visiting a small school that had been built for the fishing families’ children, and then walked out along a breakwater that was also the roof of the tunnel through which the British used to move the slaves from Fort James to the shoreline before boarding the sailing vessels.  As well as a thoroughfare, the breakwater today also serves as the main latrine area for the fishing village.

The beach of the village was especially active when we visited in the mid-morning, because most of the fishing is done at night and the boats were returning to shore.  There were areas where fish were being sold (including some fascinating organisms that made the area resemble a takeaway aquarium – crabs, giant sea snails, huge grouper fish, and so on).  In other areas, the nets were being repaired, while in still other areas the boats were being cleaned.  It felt like a huge privilege to visit the fishing village and be able to wander and photograph so freely.  I just worry that the small fee I paid was going to be used to re-stock someone’s marijuana supply, and thus anyone who visited that afternoon might not receive such a hospitable welcome.

Having explored the fishing village, we returned to the car and drove a short distance eastwards to the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park and Mausoleum.  Kwame Nkrumah was Ghana’s first president following independence from Britain in 1957, and his body is buried at the base of a large, abstract, grey monumental structure.  There was also a small museum to honour Nkrumah, featuring an esoteric collection of objects such as his work desk and telephone, his bookcase, his sofa, his coffin, the covers of some of his books and some of the jackets he wore of special occasions.  There was also a collection of photos (mostly with very poor compositions and picture quality) of his meetings with various world leaders such as Mao, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, Nehru and others.  In a separate glass-sided shed, Nkrumah’s Cadillac limousine was exhibited, although the flat rear left tyre was almost as depressing to see as the thick layer of dust covering the car.

Next door to the Nkrumah Park is a large complex known as the National Cultural Centre.  The reality is that this is a huge complex of stalls selling Ghanaian handicrafts and souvenirs.  The quality seemed excellent and the range available was astounding, although I can’t speak about the prices that were being charged.  Even though I was not really interested in shopping, it was great to walk through the passageways and admire the exquisite African arts and crafts on display, after which we walked further onwards towards the shoreline, making our way through the village where some artisans were actually working to make a few of the goods on display.

Our final visit for the morning was back to Jamestown to walk through the small market and see some of the colonial buildings in the area.  Little pride seems to be taken in the old colonial buildings, most of which are in a fairly sorry state of decay.  We also took the time to walk to the nearby headland, which gave us some marvellous views of the fishing village we had visited earlier in the day as well as the savage coastal erosion that is affecting Accra’s shoreline.

After the morning’s explorations, we returned to our hotel and spent the next couple of hours indoors during the heat of the day (which was fairly intense).  I have had cause to introduce Andrew to the well-known saying “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun” on more than one occasion during this trip, and today was one of those days.

Then, in the late afternoon, we went out to make one final visit to explore Accra.  Our destination was the Makola Market, a vast complex of stalls selling everything you might expect a large African market to sell.  The description in the Lonely Planet Guide was mildly off-putting and yet seductive at the same time: “For new arrivals to Africa, it can be an intense experience, but it’s a fun – though perhaps a little masochistic – Ghanaian initiation rite”.

In contrast to that description, Andrew and I actually found it a little tame, certainly after our experience at the huge market in Kumasi.  We began by getting an elevated view of the market from a building within the market that had several stories.  We found that this was an excellent way to get an overview before diving into the bowels of the alleys and stalls.  Once down at ground level in the alleys, the crowds were not especially dense (maybe because it was mid-to-late afternoon), and we found the stall holders to be among the friendliest we have yet encountered in West Africa.  The butchers were especially friendly, competing with each other to get us to take their photos, and I had a few light hearted banters with other men with beards as we compared our chin growth.  I suspect that “Hey, I like your beard” must be one of the standard sentences that every Ghanaian child learns in school, as it has been the greeting used by many local people throughout this country on hundreds of occasions to start conversations.

Well, as you can see, we have had a great day – a kaleidoscopic day, a physically tiring but mentally energising day.  As a result, I have hundreds of photos I want to share with you.  How do I choose?


27 January 2014

Day 31 - Accra, Ghana